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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
16 - 30 June 2003
Sophie Osborn — in California Condor Restoration    ShareAt 0630 on the already warm morning of June 18, Project Director Chris Parish opened up our baited condor trap and settled back in a folding chair in the trapping blind to await the arrival of the giant birds. Only four condors had roosted at the release site on the Vermilion Cliffs the night before, so he expected to get off to a rather slow start. We were finally beginning the task of recapturing our 35 free-flying condors to inoculate them against the dreaded West Nile Virus. Although West Nile was not yet present in Arizona, we could not afford to take risks, given the few California Condors that exist in the wild. Many of the captive condors that form the breeding program had already been vaccinated with a vaccine developed specially for the condors and it was now time to confer a measure of protection on the wild birds.

Just after 0900, Chris heard the inimitable symphonic sound of the wind in condor wings. Soon, several condors were drifting with effortless grace over the trap and nearby trapping blind, heads swiveling as they examined the carcass below them. Moments later, they began landing noisily on and around the trap. The four condors that had roosted at the release site the night before now had been joined by four more condors that had flown in from the nearby Kaibab Plateau and the southwest corner of the Paria Plateau.

Just before 1100, hungry condors began nervously entering the trap then quickly rushing out again. When nothing happened and the carcass remained in tantalizing view, a few naïve youngsters finally entered the trap and began feeding. Although the older condors are exponentially more nervous about entering the trap than are the younger birds, they seem to find it nearly impossible to resist a carcass on which other birds are feeding. Once Condors 114 and 162 had joined the younger birds, Chris quickly pulled the trap shut. He had managed to catch every one of the eight condors that were currently at our release site: Condors 114, 162, 195, 223, 243, 253, 257, and 272.

Quickly, condor field crew members converged on the trap and began the arduous task of processing condors. Two crewmembers would walk into the large trap and net a condor with a large fishing net. Once the condor had been restrained, it would be carried to our processing area. There one crewmember would cradle the condor’s body on his or her lap, another crewmember would hold the condors head and neck (thereby restraining the condor’s most dangerous weapon – its bill), and a third crewmember would hold the condors powerful legs and large floppy feet. Meanwhile, Chris Parish and I took turns drawing blood from each condor’s leg, administering the West Nile vaccine (a shot in the bird’s thigh), and replacing any non-functioning radio transmitters. Finally, after testing the lead levels in each bird’s blood using our lead field tester, we released each condor we’d trapped. (Condor 243, who we had decided needed a little more growing-up time in captivity, was transported to our flight pen where he will be held until we re-release him again this fall.)

As we worked, we noticed an ever-increasing number of condors in the skies above us. To our amazement, birds piled into the release site coming from as far away as the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (over 50 miles away). As we processed and released the last bird, the skies above us swirled with condors and we were treated to the sight of a veritable condor maelstrom. We all gazed skyward, transfixed by the rare and utterly magnificent sight of 25 condors wheeling and diving and drifting above us. To think that only 22 condors once remained in existence! We couldn’t help but feel extraordinarily privileged to witness a sight that many once swore had been lost forever.

But work beckoned. Protecting these incomparable creatures was of paramount importance to every one of us. Thirty of our 35 free-flying condors were now at the release site. Quickly we reset the trap, hoping we might catch a few more. As we waited for birds to overcome their nervousness and go into the trap to feed, however, we were unexpectedly confronted by a dilemma that had never before been encountered in the history of the Arizona condor reintroduction project: What to do about parent condors?!? (A problem we were all too delighted to be experiencing!!) Condors 123 and 127, the parents of Arizona’s first wild-hatched condor chick in the last two centuries, had returned to the release site perhaps hoping to find some food for their hungry chick. Should we just let them feed? Should we trap and inoculate the parents given the opportunity, or would this keep the parents away from their chick for too long?

We decided that ensuring that at least one of the parents had access to food and could return to the nest with a full crop to feed the chick was of paramount importance. In an agony of suspense, we waited as female Condor 127 joined other condors at the carcass inside the trap. We intended to let her get her fill before attempting to trap the other birds. Unfortunately, male Condor 158 kept bullying the other feeding condors and pushing them off the carcass. Soon, Condor 127 rushed out of the trap, while other younger condors rushed in trying to grab a bite before Condor 158 chased them off again. Quickly, we changed our plan and had John Goodwin of Arizona Game and Fish Department, who was currently manning the trap, pull the trap’s door closed. Instead of allowing Condors 123 and 127 to feed inside the trap, we would process the birds in the trap and toss out the remains of the carcass in the hopes that 123 and 127 might be able to feed without Condor 158’s interfering presence. To our amazement, John had shut the trap on nine more condors: Condors 133, 136, 158, 193, 198, 210, 241, 274, and 281. Frenetically, we began processing the birds, watching as the sun sped unusually quickly toward the horizon. As darkness closed in, an exhausted crew released our last condor, juvenile female Condor 281, the youngest free-flying condor in Arizona.

It had been a day of turbulent emotions—euphoria at seeing so many condors gracing the skies above the Vermilion Cliffs and relief that almost half of our condors were now protected against the West Nile Virus, coupled with the shattering realization that our world still contained hazards that might yet threaten the very existence of the species we were all trying so desperately to restore. While the majority of the 17 condors we had trapped were releasable, an unexpectedly high number of birds had elevated lead levels in their blood.

We re-released Condors 193 and 253, who had slightly elevated lead levels, knowing they would be relatively easy to re-catch in a few days to determine whether their lead levels were on the rise or not. However, we transported Condors 136 and 210, who also had elevated lead levels, to our flight pen. Both birds rarely return to the release site in the summer and would be difficult to re-catch. After seeing the condors dancing with the sky only a few hours earlier, it was beyond disheartening to transport these two females to the confines of a wire enclosure.

Nothing, however, brought our spirits lower than the situation we faced with seven-year-old female Condor 133. Her lead levels were higher than our lead field tester could document. (Our field lead tester only goes as high as 65 ug/dL; for lead values that are higher than this, our tester flashes a reading of “HI.”) We would need to x-ray then chelate her. Poor, poor Condor 133. My heart ached for her. She had had high lead levels and required chelation in the spring of 2002 and then again in the fall of 2002. And now she was going to be subjected to yet another round of chelation (a series of 10 injections over five days to help rid the body of lead).

On June 19, the day after we captured 17 of our free-flying condors, Chris took Condor 133 into the Roundtree Veterinary Hospital in Page Arizona for an x-ray. To our relief, she did not contain any lead fragments in her system. Although evidence increasingly suggests that ingesting lead fragments from animals that have been shot is a primary threat to condors, it seems likely that our condors may also be getting lead from sources other than ammunition. Condor 133 had spent most of the last few weeks in Grand Canyon National Park. Could birds be ingesting lead from old mining sites? Were they drinking water that leaked from lead pipes? Were the birds feeding on animals that had fed on plants growing in areas that had been contaminated with leaded gasoline when such fuel was in widespread use? Or were the birds ingesting microscopic lead fragments from poached animals? We continue to work closely with Grand Canyon National Park and Arizona Game and Fish, two of our primary cooperators, to find answers to these frustratingly elusive questions.

Meanwhile, our trapping efforts were far from over. Over 26 and 27 June, Chris and the field crew trapped, four additional condors, including mother Condor 127! Terrified to cause Condor 127 undue stress and keep her away from her growing chick, Chris and the crew bled, weighed, and vaccinated Condor 127 in under ten minutes! To our tremendous relief, her blood lead levels were negligible—great news for her as well as for her eight week-old nestling! In addition, to capturing and vaccinating Condors 126, 246, and 248, Chris and the condor crew also recaptured and retested Condor 193 and 253’s blood-lead levels. Both birds’ lead-levels had dropped and the birds were re-released.

Meanwhile, our trapping efforts were far from over. Over the 26 and 27 of June, Chris and the field crew trapped, six additional condors, including mother Condor 127! Terrified to cause Condor 127 undue stress and keep her away from her growing chick, Chris and the crew bled, weighed, and vaccinated Condor 127 in under ten minutes! To our tremendous relief, her blood lead levels were negligible – great news for her as well as for her eight week-old nestling! In addition, to capturing and vaccinating Condors 126, 187, 227, 246, and 248, Chris and the condor crew also recaptured and retested Condor 193 and 253’s blood-lead levels. Both birds’ lead-levels had dropped and the birds were re-released.

On June 28, new crewmembers Brandon Breen and Eddie Feltes helped Chris Parish administer Condor 133’s final blood test. To our delight her lead levels were minimal and she was ready to be released. Minutes later, they drove her out to nearby Badger Canyon and opened up the transport kennel. Under Brandon’s watchful eye, Condor 133 took a few short flights, but primarily spent the next few hours resting and preening. Finally, at 1130 hours, she launched out over the Colorado River, circled the area for several minutes, then headed west to join the other condors. Condor 133 was back in the wild.

Until next time . . .

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